If you haven’t seen Battle Bots on the Science Channel or Discovery, you’re missing out. A cross between MMA cage fighting and a high school science fair, Battle Bots pits teams of robot builders and their creations in a series of duels, each team vying for the grand prize – the Giant Nut. It’s all in good fun as you root for your favorites, with names like Minotaur, Valkyrie, and Tombstone, slice, pound, toss, and fry their opponents in the Battle Box.
Seriously, though, even if robots don’t all look like the maid from the Jetsons or the lifelike androids from Terminator, their uses are limited only by the imaginations of their builders. By definition, a robot is simply a machine that is programmed to do complex tasks, semi-autonomously. Ironically, by that definition, Battle Bots are not technically robots, since they are directly controlled by humans, but why quibble?
Robots have been used in manufacturing for decades, and are particularly useful in manufacturing small parts that require precise measurements. Electronic parts suppliers are able to program machines to manufacture ultra-miniature transformers for military and civilian applications. If you need metal springs in any size, robots can be programmed to produce the correct size, especially very small sizes, more accurately and consistently than a human could do it. Increasingly, though, robots are branching out into other fields, such as medicine, entertainment, and education.
Researchers at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, for example, have designed a shape-changing search and rescue ‘bot that can climb, crawl, and feel its way through and around obstacles, without direct human control. The Wyss Institute at Harvard has created centimeter-sized “soft robots,” and are working toward even more miniaturization. Someday, our bodies may contain millions of nanobots constantly monitoring and repairing us from the inside out. First, though, we will have mini robots that can work in spaces too small or too dangerous for people, and can change their shape as needed for the environment or task in which they are being employed.
What about invisible robots? Actually, the term “virtual robot” is more accurate, but “invisible” sounds better. Web search robots can be programmed to search thousands of websites in a fraction of the time it would take a human to do the same task. Do you want to find a Suffolk locksmith in Lindenhurst? Search the entire works of Shakespeare for references to butterflies? Find every pizza restaurant in the country? A search bot can do it. Search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo use bots to expand their databases, so you can type any question and get an almost instant answer.
Before we start worrying about the machine revolution, we must remember than robotics and artificial intelligence are completely different technologies. Robots are physical machines (except for search bots, but, again, why quibble?) programmed to do designated tasks. Artificial Intelligence is a type of computer program that is designed to learn and adapt, as people do. Robots may contain artificial intelligence, but usually, do not. The robot that is programmed to do a task will not learn how to do the task more efficiently unless re-programmed. A robot controlled by an AI program could learn. Not to worry, though – we are still a long way from Skynet, or Colossus: The Forbin Project.